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gluten free

You can’t go to a restaurant or grocery store anymore without seeing a section devoted to all things gluten-free. But is it healthier to skip the gluten?

gluten free

Going Gluten-free: A Breakdown

You can’t go to a restaurant or grocery store anymore without seeing a section devoted to all things gluten-free. But is it healthier to skip the gluten? Are you confused about celiac disease, and what it is about gluten that people are avoiding? There is a lot of information out there and it’s important to understand the basics so you can build the meals you want–with the nutrients your body needs–and avoid symptoms that might come with a gut that doesn’t like gluten.

What is gluten?

A gluten-free diet is for celiac disease, a disorder that causes an intolerance to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in grains, such as wheat, rye and barley and gives bread its “stretchiness.” When gluten is digested, it breaks into two parts: glutenin and gliadin. When you have celiac disease, it is gliadin that’s responsible for the toxic response. This leads to inflammation in the small intestine and other uncomfortable symptoms. Because of this, a gluten-free diet is the only way for controlling this disease. Fortunately, it’s a treatment that works. If you eliminate as needed, you should be able to live symptom-free.

So, what can a gluten-free person eat?

It is incredibly important to eat a well-balanced diet. USDA’s MyPlate recommends making half your plate fruits and vegetables, and dividing the other half between grains and protein foods. You can include all of these food groups on a gluten-free diet, but you’ll make most of the changes to the section of the plate for grains. If you feel that only mainstream grains, such as whole wheat bread and cereal, can fill up that particular section, don’t be discouraged! There are many gluten-free products and snacks that line the shelves of grocery stores; however, this is not the only solution. There are also a number of grain alternatives you can use to achieve a well-balanced diet.

The following table lists the most nutritionally complete and highly recommended wheat substitutes for a gluten-free diet. Most of these are seeds but they provide nutrients similar to grains. All of these alternatives can be used to help you fill that quarter of your plate with healthy and nutritious grains. Not everyone has the same tastes, so mix and match and pick your favorites to create your perfect grain alternatives. (To be safe, always confirm that all products say “gluten-free” on the package.)

Gluten-Free Grains Description and Uses Cooking Method
1. Amaranth
    Nutty flavor
    A good protein source
    Excellent for thickening soups, gravy and casseroles
    Ground into a flour, it can be used in place of wheat flour in products such as breads, noodles, cereals and cookies
    To cook: Use approximately 2 1/2 cups of water to 1 cup of amaranth
    and boil for 18–20 minutes
2. Buckwheat
    Roasted for an earthy, nutty taste
    Enjoyed as a side dish in stuffing
    Buckwheat flour can be used in pancakes
    Roast buckwheat prior to cooking (if necessary) for 4–5 minutes
    To cook: Use approximately 2 cups of water to 1 cup of buckwheat and boil for 15–20 minutes
3. Millet
    Mild taste
    Can be cooked as an individual grain, like rice or into a creamier texture, such as mashed potatoes
    Millet has been made into pilafs, cereals, and is often added to breads
    Toast lightly in a dry pan, then use as a breading for chicken or fish
    Fluffy Millet: Toast 1 cup of millet for 4–6 minutes and then boil in 2 cups of water for 13-18 minutes, let stand 10 minutes
    Sticky Millet: Boil 1 cup of millet in 2 ¾ cup of water for 13–18 minutes, let stand 10 minutes
    Creamy Millet: Grind 1 cup of millet and boil in 5 cups of water. Stir occasionally for 15–30 minutes
4. Quinoa
    A seed that is a good protein source
    Comes in a number of colors including red, ivory and black
    Great as a side dish to replace pasta
    Found in a range of products including cereal, breads, crackers, granolas and even some beverages
    To remove the bitter flavor, rinse well before cooking
    To cook: Use approximately 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of quinoa and cook for about 20 minutes
5. Rice
    Rice is classified by size and texture
    All plain rice is gluten free – brown, white, basmati, jasmine, etc. However – always check the ingredients on rice mixes.
    Rice flour is most often used as a replacement for wheat flour in gluten-free breads
    To cook: Use approximately 2 cups of water for every 1 cup of brown rice, bring to a boil then reduce heat, cover and simmer for 45–50 minutes
    Other varieties may take differing amounts of time
6. Corn
    Classified as a starchy vegetable
    Try fresh, frozen or canned
    Corn flour and corn meal can be useful in gluten-free cooking and baking.
    Cornstarch can be used a thickening agent for gravies and sauces in place of all-purpose flour.
    Popcorn is a great gluten-free snack – and it’s a whole grain!
    To cook: Fresh corn can be shucked and cooked in just 3 minutes.

Oats are often cross-contaminated with wheat in processing. Gluten-free oats are available. However oats contain a protein called avenin, similar to gliadin, which some people with celiac disease can’t tolerate.

A few smart ways to smooth the transition:

Check your pantry first. You may be surprised at the gluten-free items you already have. Many foods are naturally gluten-free, like fruits, vegetables and minimally processed meats.

Learn about labels. “Wheat-free” is not necessarily “gluten-free.” Products have to report wheat in the allergen statement, but they do not need to include rye, barley or gluten. Make sure to look for these other grains in the list of ingredients. Your best alternative is to choose products that say “gluten-free” on the package, check product websites or call the company at the number listed on the package.

Open your mind, then open your mouth! Each grain alternative has a different taste and texture. Finding your favorite is important for creating a satisfying meal. Don’t be afraid to experiment!

Don’t say “bye” to bread (at least not completely.) Baking is still possible! You can’t always use grain-alternative flours interchangeably with wheat flour. Some recipes will call for addition of products such as xanthan gum, tapioca starch or sorghum so that your breads, cakes and cookies have the right texture. These products can be purchased at many stores, although gluten-free commercial baking mixes are also available that already contain these ingredients.

Don’t go too gung-ho. “Gluten-free” does not always equal healthy. Many products lack essential nutrients and are high in fat, sugar, sodium and calories. Pay careful attention to the rest of the label to make sure that the product is not only gluten-free, but also worth your time. If the nutrients aren’t there, pass it up!

Limiting ourselves or changing our eating habits in any way can be overwhelming. But it’s all about educating yourself and giving your body what it really needs. As time goes on, following a gluten-free diet does get easier. One way to take some of the questions away is to look for our Gluten-Free tag throughout our aisles. For more information on living a gluten-free lifestyle, download our brochure in the Health & Wellness Library.